My Family Up a Shady Tree: Ratatosk

November 25, 2010


Image Source: greatdreams.com

This is the overarching tree whose branches stretch over the heavens and hold all the stars in its grasp, the living cosmos which extends from the furthest heavens down through the thick axis of the world(s), and into the roots of all that has been but now lies unmanifest in the deep soil and waters of dream that infill the xylem of the world.

This is the mead-tree, whose sap is ensouled with the richest strains of sweet, potent wisdom, nourished on the digested experiences of all souls swirling in the wells beneath the earth, rising up in surges through its thick, unseen veins, investing all life with ancestral resonance and substance, and spouting up showers of fresh springs of mead for the Gods in the heavens, whence fall the dews that sprinkle the earths, sweet light honeys that bees feed upon in flowers’ petals, nectar and fluff of pollen. This is the great maple tree of old that ever endures, its syrup rich with the sweetened blood of all ancestors, ever filtered upwards into its mountainous, underground roots whose depth no being has ever plumbed.

This is the great living-loom in whose branches all of life is woven together like tangled Celtic knotwork, the great Web of Wyrd in which all beings intertwine and find their life and spirit strangely reflected and refracted in each other. It is the pantheist, Gods-substance-swirling of all worlds, the meet and moot of ancestral and divine, the animist pageant and passion of skins-swap whereby peels are enfruited with various, diverse souls, and creatures slip on and off hides in a dark, sublime carnival of costumes and hide-and-seek, macabre, and through that composting, vitalistic and awe-inspiring.

This is the Tree of Awe, in whose limbs all that is awful and awe-inspiring transpires, tremendous holiness beyond reckon, transcendant terror and wonder, the organic nature of the universe in all its mystery and unfathom, its horrific marvels and miraculous, subtle transformations. Too mighty to be held in its awesomeness and entirety by one mortal, it is seen only with eyes of the spirit that joins its breath to the winds that blow through all worlds, swirling and merging itself with all spirit. A ghostly, spectral tree seldom seen except to those themselves spirits, it is daubed each day in a rich, purified clay, essence of holy earth, whose clear substance bleaches its trunk, and taken up, renders its body will o’ wisp glassy, a pulsing, crystalline, elvish wonder.

Think some thoughts. Smallest leaves bud on twig of twigs smaller than small on humble branch branched out from branches twisting and turning inwards into one single bough of bough-of-boughs tree. All eyes, ways of seeing, thoughts held in its twisted, gnarled branches, and in order to see more of it, more eyes are needed, new ways of thinking that open up the spiralling worlds of gasped ungraspableness. Broader than broad, it holds more than you can ever know, and not even the Gods know how deep its roots run. The world’s mystery is unplumbed.

The Tree of Life, Gustav Klimt

Think broader, more modern : all galaxies telescope-captured, nebulae, quasars, deep-sea expanses of thickest night and space ; all particles upstreaming from quantum dance of energy-foam dashed wave on wave upon each other in the nanospheric micropuscle ; world upon worlds, planet upon planets, stars, asteroids, moons and comets, life and all lifes, terrestrial, extraterrestrial, xenobiologies, metamorphosant symphonies, Stravinskian rhythms of strange, unknown DNA’s, all existential realms plausible and happening — all, all held within this tree whose name parses the edge of infinity.

As Richard Pasichnyk, author of The Vital Vastness, says, ” the Universe itself is fundamentally biological. In fact, so much is this the case that life constitutes a physical law; it had to arise, it was an inevitable result of the laws of physics as they exist. … What is often overlooked is that the objects in the Universe, as well as the Universe as a whole, have life-like characteristics…”. He says, further, “The seeds of life are everywhere, and the laws for its existence are built into the Universe. A recent, new statistical analysis based on how quickly life became established on Earth suggests that life will start on at least a third of Earth-like planets within a billion years of them developing suitable conditions. Moreover, recent discoveries that planets are common around Sun-like stars means there’s probably no shortage of prospective homes, either.”

You lookin' at me?

Richard at his website, www.livingcosmos.com, describes how all of this is not metaphor, but actual living, scientific reality. The matrix of existence and life-processes that our ancestors called Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, is the fundamental reality of the universe, the underpinning and structure of all activity, the skeletal, vascular, and constantly growing flesh of flesh of all we see and hear, and more.

Called Yggdrasil, from ygg, often translated “terror” but more properly etymologically-rendered as “awe”, and drasil, from drösla, to “roam about”, and thus, poetically, may refer to the meandering of a cow through a meadow, or the movement of a horse, and therefore may stand in for a horse itself. It might be rendered, “Awe-Wandering”, “Awe Roamed About”, as well as “Ygg’s Horse”, with “Ygg” (Awe-Inspiring) being one of Odin’s bynames, and his eight-legged horse a poetic stand-in for the eight winds in whose drafts the branches of the windy tree blows. Whereever one might “roam about” in “awe”, there is Yggdrasil manifest.

The Vedic Hindus, Indo-European cousins to the Teutons, called the World-Tree the “Asvattha”, and in the 13th century, the great saint and yogi Jnaneshwar, wrote the Jnaneshwari, a profound and insightful commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, in which he expanded greatly upon the Asvattha, drawing upon the great roots of the Vedic tradition and expanding them further in an expounding upon the great world-tree which is worth quoting from in extensive excerpts, because this commentary gives the context of Yggdrasil in rich and “thick description” as Clifford Geertz says, and will amplify our appreciation of what Yggdrasil encompasses.

“…[T]he Asvattha tree, they say, is indestructible”, its leaves the Vedic hymns, and he who knows this tree knows everything there is to know in all the Vedas. It is called the “great tree of mundane existence” which “no one can fathom”. This “extraordinary tree” “is not an ordinary tree” but “is evergreen”, and cannot be “destroyed” by being “burnt or cut with an axe”.

“Whatever things exist in this world are pervaded by this tree. Just as the entire sky is pervaded by water at the time of deluge, or the night is flooded with darkness at sunset, so this entire universe is pervaded by this tree.” “It looks as though the sky has put forth foliage or the wind has taken the form of this tree or the three states of creation, sustenance and dissolution have become incarnate in the form of this tree. In this way this top-rooted tree has grown thick in the form of the universe.” Unfathomable, “Its form as such is not known here, nor its end nor its source nor its foundation.” “One cannot say that it is, or that it is not. Though not susceptible to reason. It is said to be without beginning. It is the chest full of diverse powers. It is the support of the world as the sky is the support of the clouds and it is the folded cloth in the form of universe. It is the seed of the world tree, the source of mundane existence…”

It grows out of roots which are “pure Brahman”, and indeed, the entire tree is extensive with and the outgrowth of Brahman itself.”Monists believe that … all forms of reality — gods and goddesses, plants and animals, the material universe, and humans — share a common essence. Hindus call this essence Brahman… Infinite and eternal, Brahman is the ground of existence and the source of the universe. It is discoverable only through the most profound contemplation, and its true nature is not revealed on the surface of things… “Brahman” is from the verb brh, Sanskrit for “grow, swell, enlarge, sprout”.

Jnaneshwar continues : “…[T]he Brahman itself becomes the tree in the form of mundane existence…” “Just a person, though single, becomes his retinue in the dream, so this entire universe is the growth arid expanse of the Supreme Self. In this way, this curious tree grows and produces shoots…”

Ever-changing and in-growth, it is the field of all activity and manifestation. “This tree does not remain the same even until the morrow. Just as the hues of the cloud change every moment or the lightning does not last in its entirety even for a short while, or the water on a quivering lotus leaf or the mind of man in distress does not remain steady, so is the condition of this world-tree which perishes every moment. In popular parlance the people call this the holy fig tree …

Hollowed fig tree in Daintree Rainforest, Queensland

In short, this tree is called Ashvattha, as it is transient. But this tree is also known as indestructible, i.e. everlasting, its implied meaning is this. The sea evaporates to form the clouds and is replenished by the rivers flooded by the showers of rain and so remains full so long as the above process continues. In the same way, the modifications in the tree take place so rapidly that people hardly perceive them. It is for this reason the people call it indestructible. Just as a munificent person gathers merit by giving his money in charity, so this world tree, undergoing decay every moment, still remains everlasting. Just as when the chariot moves very fast, its wheels seem to have no movement, so no sooner a branch of the world tree in the form of creatures withers up in course of time than it is replaced by numerous fresh sprouts.

 But no one knows when the branch drops down and when the numerous branches shoot up; in the same way as one does not know which clouds in the month of July come in the sky and which disappear. The branches of the world-tree fall off at the time of world dissolution but they grow in abundance like a thick forest at the time of creation.

The barks of the tree get peeled off by the stormy winds at the time of world- dissolution, but they appear in tufts at the beginning of an epoch. … Just as the current year ends and ushers in a new year, and one does not know when a day passes away, giving place to a new one, or one does not perceive the joints of breezes when they flow continuously, so one does not know how many branches grow on this tree and fall off.

No sooner than a young shoot in the form of a body falls off than hundreds of such shoots grow on this tree. As a result, the world tree appears to be everlasting. As the water of the river current flows away very fast, it is followed by another so that the river appears to have a continuous flow, so this universe, though impermanent, appears to be permanent.

 Numerous ripples appear and disappear in the sea in a twinkling of the eye, and so they appear to be permanent. … In the same way, the decomposition and growth of this world-tree takes place so fast simultaneously that the ordinary people do not perceive it and call it everlasting.”

The World Tree and terra Australis

Jnaneshwar similarly describes the abodes of all the gods and seers spiralling up in its higher branches, for all activity in the universe takes place within its boughs. “Up and down its branches spread… resulting in actions in the human world”, and in it grow all species of all life. “Then four shoots come out from the bottom of the tree, consisting of the four orders of living beings, born from sweat (Svedaja), from womb (jaraja) from the soil (Udbh jia) and from eggs (Andaja).

From each of these branches spring eighty-four lakhs of species, each giving rise to an unlimited number of twigs in the form of beings. Those straight branches, which give rise to zigzag twigs, represent the different sub-species of beings.” Yet for the world-tree, “life” includes more than what we would call biological ; it is an animistic vision of the universe. “On its top grow similar sprouts, which give rise to branches such as trees, grass, iron, earth and stones and these branches too bear similar fruits.”

The world-tree, in short, was not only the essence of existence, but of all holy awe itself, and it is to preserve this tree that the Gods and all the Einheriar train and fight, for existence, in all its living manifestations, must go on, for even though cattle, kinsmen, and self must die, that the dreams of all beings continue to upsprout in worldings and wyrdings is what gives life meaning.

~ Source: Heathen Ranter


In Norse mythology, Ratatosk (“Sharptooth”) is a squirrel, running up and down with messages in the giant tree Yggdrasil, and spreading gossip. In particular, Ratatosk ferried insults between the eagle at the top of Yggdrasil, and the dragon Nidhogg beneath its roots.

Revisit the Seven Deadly Squirrel Sins, March 2010

Creative writing fun:  The Dig Tree – choose your shovel



  1. How fitting that squirrels should have a role on the World Tree! Little bastards.

  2. Now how did I know – as soon as I read the title, before seeing the pics – that “ratatosk” was a squirrel? Where _did_ I pick that up?? In my head, it’s the sound a squirrel makes; onomatopoeia. Also, the information is presented in Afrikaans, not English. Must’ve been some children’s show…

  3. Children’s shows……..aaaah. I sometimes wonder if my monkey mind is just coughing up all the metaphorical TV shows I watched as a kid. Still have a soft touch for Basil Brush.

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